Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CITY OF DRAGONS - Kelli Stanley

FIRST LINE: "Miranda didn't hear the sound he made when his face hit the sidewalk."

Miranda Corbie is a former prostitute turned female private investigator in 1940 San Francisco when a young man falls dead at her feet in the midst of a Rice Bowl Party. The cops are trying to sweep his murder quietly under the carpet; no one will care about a Japanese boy after all. But Miranda does and she's determined to find out who killed Eddie Takahashi. Meanwhile Helen Winters wants to hire Miranda to find her step-daughter Phyllis, who she believes is responsible for her husband's murder. Phyllis is missing and Helen wants her found and institutionalized. As Miranda uncovers clues in both cases, more questions arise and Miranda's own life is endangered. Life as a young, single, female PI seeking the truth in 1940 San Francisco may turn out to be shorter than Miranda anticipated.

The setting of CITY OF DRAGONS comes alive, taking on a character role, at page one. Stanley evokes every human sense to transport the reader into a pre-war San Francisco.
"A trombone slide squealed from somewhere on Market, but was drowned out by a streetcar clang and the irritated horn of a car before she could figure out the song."
"The fog was creeping down from the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont and exclusive set on Nob Hill. It flowed sinuously over Stockton and Clay, past the GOLDEN STAR RADIO SIGN, drowning out the yellow neon in a sea of thick white haze, heading for the piers. A foghorn belched, the low hum filling one of the few silences in the heart of Chinatown. Real fog was an event, not just a shapeless cloud of moisture. As alive as the dragons of Chinatown and the ghosts of gold rush San Francisco."
"San Francisco yawned and stretched, waking to Monday morning with a hangover. Chinatown shutters squealed open on rusty hinges, the streets shut off now, self-contained, the cotton-candy smell evaporated, the carnival gone on a dilapidated coach car to smaller, more simple places.

Old women swept chicken bones and popcorn and cigarette butts from foyers. Incense burned, sending curling waves of smoke drifting down to the Bay, to tickle the noses of businessmen on the ferry to Oakland."
In addition to the sense-stimulating imagery, Stanley makes effective use of song references throughout the novel to create a more palpable atmosphere and tone.

Tensions are mounting between Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans; corruption is running rampant. And Miranda Corbie is far from the typical private investigator of that era. As a point of contrast, Miranda's office is hidden in the corner of her building next to the famous Pinkertons. Not only is she having to overcome the stigma of being a former prostitute but she also has to battle the gender bias of the time period:

"The boys club. They loved her and hated her, used her and ignored her, tried to forget she existed, tried to keep her where they thought she belonged. One or two hoping he'd be the one."
Miranda's past, has made her wise and hardened to the ways of the world, but not immune to the dangers and the violence of the corner she's chosen to make a life in. She's not helpless, but she also isn't superwoman. She's a real woman on a mission. Beauty assists her, but her past hinders her. All of these complexities contribute to the plot conflicts and almost work to illustrate Miranda as the personification of the city; Stanley blends character, plot and setting so that the lines are almost indistinguishable, lost maybe in San Francisco's fog. No matter where the lines have gone, the melding of the novel elements creates a seamless read; chapters flowing one right after the other.

Readers, too, will find themselves enveloped by a fog, the fog Stanley masterminds in the pages of CITY OF DRAGONS, a fog that carries the reader out of the present and squarely into a time gone by. The "City of Dragons" is deceptive and dazzling and dangerous. Just try to resist its temptations.

CITY OF ANGELS will be available February 2, 2010 from St. Martin's Minotaur (ISBN: 978-0-312-60360-1). And if you're interested in the song references I mentioned in this review, you can see a listing of the music used in CITY OF DRAGONS here.


Kay January 20, 2010 at 8:12 AM  

I'm looking forward to reading this one. Glad it will soon be out. Sounds really good.

Jenn's Bookshelves January 20, 2010 at 10:56 AM  

Can't WAIT to read this one!

Kelli Stanley January 20, 2010 at 1:07 PM  

Jen, thank you so much for that extraordinary, wonderful, and thoughtful review!

I'm so glad you enjoyed the book and meeting Miranda--and will get a chance to meet the modern day City of Dragons at Bouchercon in October. :)

Thanks again, and take care!

Poncho January 20, 2010 at 2:33 PM  

Resisting the temptations of the "City of Dragons"? I won't try.

Thanks for this amazing review, Jen. Now I can't wait to find the book so I can devour it and get lost in the fog.

kathy d. July 8, 2010 at 5:48 AM  

This was such a good read and I like the political issues the author brings up that are often not discussed about WWII, what happened in Asia.

And I liked the character--a bit V.I. Warshawski but more jaded, with a past and vices. But tough, strong, smart, independent and brave.

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